The Iranian Horn in Iraq (Daniel 8 )

Iraqi Shiite Muslims from the Popular Mobilization Units march during a parade marking the annual Quds Day , Baghdad June 2017 /AFP

Iran’s Trojan Army: How Iranian Militia Have Merged with Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces

Sebastian Rees

Published September 26th, 2019 – 09:18 GMT

On 25 August, Israeli drones carried out an attack on Al-Bukamal, a town in Western Iraq near the Syrian border. The following day, an Iranian backed Shi’a militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah confirmed that the strike had killed its commander in the region.

The attacks brought to public attention the status of this relatively unknown group and raised the profile of an issue that will long play a crucial role as Iraq seeks to rebuild itself after decades of conflict- the relation between militia movements and the battered Iraqi state. Key in this regard is the status of the so-called Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a coalition of militia groups which play an oversized role in Iraqi political life.

The PMF emerged in 2014-15 as Iraqis took the fight back to the Islamic State, which had overrun much of the country’s North and West. Between 30-50 armed groups emerged to fight the Islamic state, and whilst these early PMF outfits consisted of Sunni, Christian and Yazidi armed groups, the majority were drawn from the country’s majority Shi’a population.

Iraq’s Shi’a Grand Ayatollah, or Marji, Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa instructing Shi’a Iraqis to take up arms against the Islamic State, and by mid 2015, significant battlefield successes had been recorded. Whilst initial militia efforts relied on tight operational budgets, improvised organisation and inexperienced command structures, a number of Shi’a groups sought assistance from or pledged active allegiance to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Many Sunni and Yazidi forces, lacking advanced weaponry and experience, paid a heavy price in resisting the Islamic State. Fighters tied to Iran benefitted from funding and weaponry and tactical support from the extraterritorial branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds force.

As such, they emerged as the leading forces in the fight against the Islamic State, securing significant popular support and ideological legitimacy in turn.

Many Sunni and Yazidi forces, lacking advanced weaponry and experience, paid a heavy price in resisting the Islamic State. Fighters tied to Iran benefitted from funding and weaponry and tactical support from the extraterritorial branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds force.

By the summer of 2017, as Iraqi security forces recaptured Mosul and rolled back most of the Islamic State’s territorial gains, particular militias sought to transform their popular legitimacy and security capabilities into political and economic influence.

A 2016 law, initiated by former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi turned the PMF into an independent military institution, reporting to the Prime Minister. An official PMF Commission was formed to institutionalise the group. A 2018 decree provides PMF members with equal pay, rights and duties as those of the military. In July 2019, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi issued a decree that called for the full military integration of the PMF.

Attempts at institutionalisation have only increased the power of Iranian backed groups. Whilst the Iraqi government has sought to make the PMF more accountable to civilian authority, PMF groups retain a significant degree of autonomy.

Attempts at institutionalisation have only increased the power of Iranian backed groups. Whilst the Iraqi government has sought to make the PMF more accountable to civilian authority, PMF groups retain a significant degree of autonomy.

The PMF Commission is dominated by individuals closely linked with Iran, including the head of the Commission Falih al-Fayyadh and his deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah who is often seen as the powerbroker of the organisation. Muhandis and Fayyadh have sought to deselect Hashd groups tied with Iran, reduce payments to certain groups and deploy Iranian tied militias to lucrative areas such as border control points.

Members of Iraq’s Badr Movement, Baghdad, July 10, 2015. /AFP

In turn, Iran-affiliated groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asaib ahl al-Haq and the Badr Corps constitute the core of the PMF. Fears exist that a PMF led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis has the potential to evolve into a force of equivalent manpower to the Iraqi Army. According to the Washington Institute, an American think tank, the PMF Commission is authorised to employ 128,000 personnel and has a budget of $2.17 billion, compared with an authorised strength of 288,979 and a budget of $7.58 million.

Fears exist that a PMF led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis has the potential to evolve into a force of equivalent manpower to the Iraqi Army.

Yet the official budget of the PMF is complemented by its involvement in a range of both illicit and licit economic activities. Controls over border checkpoints have proved particularly lucrative for PMF affiliated groups.

According to a report by the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch international relations think-tank, tariffs and taxes levied by the Iran backed Badr Corps on goods at the Safra border between Arab and Kurdish Iraq net between $12-15 million a month. PMF groups are actively involved in reconstruction and public service provision.

The PMF commission’s civilian branch, Hashd al-Madani, has expanded into service provision in areas where the state is absent. PMF groups tied to Iran have invested in a waste removal company in Basra, the Karbala taxi businesses and pharmaceutical and oil enterprises.

According to a report by the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch international relations think-tank, tariffs and taxes levied by the Iran backed Badr Corps on goods at the Safra border between Arab and Kurdish Iraq net between $12-15 million a month. PMF groups are actively involved in reconstruction and public service provision.

In addition, PMF groups have attempted to expand their influence in electoral politics. In January 2018, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organisation formed the Fatah Alliance to contest the May 2018 elections.

The Alliance won 47 parliamentary seats and formed a coalition with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance, which won the Iraqi elections. PMF affiliates therefore control 30% of the seats in the Iraqi parliament and have considerable power to effect civilian decision making.

What does the influence of the PMF augur for the future of governance in Iraq? Erwin van Veen, a senior research fellow at Clingendael, argues that ‘the increase of influence of PMF groups tied to Iran has made governance in Iraq more fragmented as it has added another network of power to the already complex equation of rule in Iraq.’ The PMF has become ‘too strong and too entrenched to face without a political crisis, violence and perhaps civil war’. ‘the increase of influence of PMF groups tied to Iran has made governance in Iraq more fragmented as it has added another network of power to the already complex equation of rule in Iraq’ – Erwin van Veen, a senior research fellow at Clingendael

An increasing involvement of Iran backed militias in operations against Israeli, Gulf State and American assets in the region risks embroiling Iraq in more open and direct conflict.

Muqtada al Sadr, a prominent cleric, is opposed to the influence of the PMF. /AFP

This fear may explain recent resistance within Iraq to the influence of the PMF. As Mr van Veen notes, though the PMF is ‘broadly popular in a strategic, military sense’, the expansion of the PMF into political structures has been treated with suspicion. In July 2018, Iraqi protesters attacked the political offices of Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Corps and called for an Iranian withdrawal from Iraq.

As Mr van Veen notes, though the PMF is ‘broadly popular in a strategic, military sense’, the expansion of the PMF into political structures has been treated with suspicion. In July 2018, Iraqi protesters attacked the political offices of Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Corps and called for an Iranian withdrawal from Iraq.

Despite the significant role that the PMF plays in Iraqi political life, it is worth noting that its influence is not unrivalled. Muqtada al Sadr still remains a dominant political figure in Iraq and is opposed to the influence of Iran affiliated PMF groups. In addition, as Mr van Veen suggests, analysts have often been too quick to treat the Shi’a community and Shi’a militia’s ‘as a monolithic whole’.

Shi’a religious centres in Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran are not aligned in their views on the political role of the clergy, and, by extension, Shi’a militias have a different conception of the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Iraqi political developments.

Finally, strategies exist to thwart the expansion of PMF influence. Mr van Veen suggests that solving the political problems posed by militia organisations will require measures to ‘reassert government control over the PMF Commission, reduce the autonomy of certain PMF groups, and reinforce the Iraqi army and police’.

However, given the fragile state of Iraq’s governing structures and the reach of its institutions, such efforts may prove unsuccessful. For now, Iraq may have to walk a tight rope, asserting control over the PMF whilst avoiding tensions that may spiral into a direct confrontation.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

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